Amid JNU protests, here's what you need to know about educational subsidies
Fee hikes, like the ones announced by JNU and the IITs, will deny people equality of opportunity, with education remaining an option only for those who can afford it. The fact that many talents would never be able to get a chance to rise in life and serve society cannot be denied.
The protests of students of Jawaharlal University against fee hikes have attracted a range of reactions. While some have supported the agitation, many on the social media have labelled the protesting students as people who survive on “doles”. Some have yet again said that the university breeds “anti-nationals” and needs to be shut down.
Few, however, have sought to go deeper into the question of subsidized education. Or have thought what could be the impact of rollback of subsidies on education – or, indeed, health – in a developing country like India that still has a long way to go in terms of having a skilled, healthy, workforce.
Contrary to what many think – and some hate JNU because they believe it is a hub of “anti-nationals” and a left-dominated campus in times when the left is on the verge of electoral collapse -- the outcome of the present JNU agitation will have a bearing on higher education as a whole.
For, JNU is not the only public institution where fees have been hiked. If a 300-per cent fee hike was announced in JNU – meaning that students would be required to shell out more than Rs. 7000 a month to study there – the IITs announced a 900-per cent hike in M Tech fees.
The astronomical hikes are not in sync with inflationary trends. Nor are these in keeping with how public institutions funded by tax-payers should view education.
These are in all likelihood a precursor to the rollback of educational subsidies. In a developing country with a huge, largely young, population, such a step would mean denial of education for the poor and even the lower middle class – for whom education is the road to upward mobility.
Those students who do go on to study will most probably have to take loans and spend the early years of their working lives paying EMIs. And if they opt out of higher education, a country that already has a dearth of people who have accessed quality education will have little chance to achieve its full potential. It will deny people equality of opportunity, with education remaining an option only for those who can afford it. The fact that many talents would never be able to get a chance to rise in life and serve society cannot be denied.
Income taxpayers in India – who erroneously believe that they alone pay taxes, forgetting that every citizen pays indirect taxes – must remember that taxes impose a reciprocal duty on the state to spend on welfare. Education and health spending is the most crucial if India has to ever become a developed nation.
School education in India has already headed towards privatization. The standards of government schools have fallen over the last few decades. Unlike countries like the US or Japan – which have affordable schools of good quality in which most students study – schooling in India is already becoming expensive. The Right to Education clause making it mandatory for schools to reserve 25-per cent seats for poor students is the only saving grace.
The Indian middle class would do well to google the story regarding a train in Japan being continued only for one passenger: a girl who boarded it to go to school. Such is the message that countries wanting to be world leaders send, so far as the importance of education is concerned.
Without subsidies, there is no quality human resource. And without the latter, there is no chance of a nation achieving greatness.
In India, the top higher educational institutions are still run and funded by the state. Think of the IITs, JNU, Delhi University, the IIMs or AIIMS and one thing binds them: they are state-run institutions of high quality boasting successful alumni who serve the government and the corporate world in key positions.
The reasons these institutions are what they include the subsidies that students here have enjoyed over the decades. Mandatory requirements of quotas apart, admission to these has been strictly based on one’s performance in the entrance examination. Ability to pay has never been a substitute for excellence – a nebulous thing that is sought to be measured by entrance tests – in any of these institutions.
Low fees also provide for diverse institutions. The rich and the poor study together – learning from one another’s life experiences and acquiring a sense of the dazzling diversity of the social world. And this enhances the ability of these students to understand the world better, making them brighter than they were when they joined.
Affordable institutions also offer poor students a chance for upward mobility. They improve as they compete. And they also acquire social capital – a web of networks – by being alumni of a top institution. All these things offer opportunity, promote excellence, and help build the future of the nation.
Those income taxpayers who say they do not want 29-year-olds to be students only display their ignorance about what makes nations great. It is research that helps nations innovate and acquire heft. And good research requires an investment of some years. One cannot complete a PhD before the age of 30, roughly speaking. If taxpayers are not willing to subsidise research scholars in their own top institutions, India will never become a knowledge hub. It is the universities of the west that will continue to innovate and Indians will adopt those innovations passively, leading to a neo-colonial intellectual culture where the west produces for us, intellectually speaking, and we passively consume it. This isn’t too different from the colonial arrangement when the British ruled India: British goods flooded Indian markets, not allowing Indian producers to compete, and Indians were just a vast market for British products like cotton clothes.
Some people in each nation aspiring for greatness will have to study to do a PhD. And the basis for selection will have to be ability, not the accident of birth in a rich family. For this, subsidized education is a must.
Developed nations have been welfare states. Even the US, the global hub of capitalism, offers farm subsidies and even an unemployment allowance to those out of job but looking for employment. If higher education in the UK is expensive, German universities do not charge tuition fees, making education affordable.
One major leap Japan took after the 1868 Meiji Restoration was in literacy. The Education Order of 1872 sought to take education beyond the elites and, indeed, beyond the male population. Literacy, which was around 40-percent, jumped to 80-percent by the end of the Meiji era in 1912.
The belief of a large section of the Indian middle class – who fancy themselves to be nationalists – that India will progress if people pay for education and health has little basis in reality. India is still a laggard in the Human Development Index, a composite measure of literacy, life expectancy and per capita income, and this should be a matter of concern for those who believe they love the country. It ranks 130 among 189 countries. If the state spends on the education and health of the poor, this dismal scenario can change for the better. And it will lead to upward mobility at the bottom of the social pyramid. Apart from offering dignity to people, it will also boost the economy in the long-run, as demand would be generated at these levels of society.
The surest way of being a nationalist in a country with millions of poor people is to pay taxes and demand that these taxes be spent on welfare. The nation is akin to a family where one must pay for the betterment of future generations. It isn’t akin to a resort where one pays for each facility.
As per the official estimation of the Narendra Modi government – captured since 2016 in the annual National Institutional Ranking Framework reports – JNU is neck and neck with IIT Kanpur and has consistently been ranked at number 6 or 7 among all Indian higher education institutions. It is ahead of all IIMs. Among universities, JNU ranks second, after Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. It also counts India’s latest Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee among its alumni.
The question is neither “right vs left” nor “nationalists vs anti-nationals”. The question is whether we care about the future of India or not.